What Are British Home Educators Opting Out Of?

Chris Harris
University of Wales
United Kingdom

Keywords: Homeschooling, home schooling, home education, British

A Brief History of Schooling From the 1500s to the 1980s
Home educators are parents who have opted out of the “educational system” of the society in which they live. This definition is only meaningful if one can specify what it is that has been opted out of. In the case of Britain such specification is difficult since the British educational system has, for the last twenty years, been going through a period of rapid change whose pace, under the influence of current political, technological, and economic changes in British society, has recently accelerated. This paper has therefore the difficult task of attempting, in short compass, to characterize a moving target. It will do so in the form of a brief history which will for simplicity’s sake confine itself to England and Wales and ignore Scotland which, American readers may be surprised to learn, has its own legal system, its own form of currency, and its own educational system.
Before the 1500s, the only educated (literate) people were the clergy and the only educational institution was the Church. The fifteen hundreds saw the establishment of fee paying schools for the laity called grammar schools, so called because they taught English, Latin, Greek, and elementary mathematics and it was in one of these that Shakespeare acquired his “small Latin and less Greek.” These fee paying, though endowed, schools prepared their male pupils for entry at the age of fourteen to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge which provided what little secondary education was available.
It was not until the nineteenth century that any great effort was made to create a literate population. The motivation of this effort was religious: the masses had to be taught to read so that they could read the Bible. Unfortunately, from the point of view of the creation of a coherent educational system, the nineteenth century was a time of the proliferation of religious denominations which dissented from the established (English national) Church of England. All these religious groups were concerned to inculcate their own religious principles in their pupils as a way of ensuring that they had members in the next generation and were therefore in competition with each other. While this competition increased the quantity of educational provision, it also increased its diversity.
After 1870, the granting of the vote to a substantial section of the working classes inspired the national government to establish a system of universal schooling. The motivation this time was political not religious; as one of the supporters of such provision remarked: “We must teach our new masters their letters!” And that was about all the system was designed to do. Some form of schooling was made compulsory for all children between five and eleven. National schools were set up to supplement the education provided by the religious schools. The curriculum of the new schools was (with one exception) confined to the three ‘R’s – Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmatic. The establishment of a universal system of national education was impossible because of the opposition of the religious groups who were allowed to maintain their own church or denominational schools and who insisted that religious instruction was part of the curriculum of the new national schools.
In the twentieth century, the educational system expanded with the piecemeal creation of secondary schools and financial aid to the religious schools in return for their employing properly trained teachers and following a centrally prescribed curriculum. The school leaving age was raised in 1918 to 14. There was also some provision of technical schools. A proper system of education was not really instituted until the 1944 Education Act which provided for free education until 15 for all. It developed a clear terminology for describing educational levels and classes of school appropriate to each: primary (5-11 years), secondary (11-18 years), and tertiary (18 years +). Secondary schools were to be divided into three types (the “tripartite system”): grammar schools for the “academically gifted” (as measured by an examination taken by all primary school pupils at 11+), technical schools for the “mechanically gifted” (which were never a success), and the “secondary modern” schools in which “ungifted” pupils were kept off the streets until they were old enough to be let out to work. This system was designed to provide “equal educational opportunity” for all. On the one hand this did make access to grammar school education possible for those who had previously been unable to afford grammar school fees, were highly intelligent, and had family encouragement and support. On the other hand it did not provide access to decent secondary education for the vast majority of children who lacked these advantages. By the nineteen fifties, the inadequacies of the system were coming to be recognized and a remedy prescribed. This was “comprehensive education,” that is secondary education for all in schools whose pupils of all academic abilities came from all social classes. There then ensued a long political battle lasting for thirty years over comprehensivization which had some of the features of the battle over “integration” in American schools in the same period.
This battle has now been won: 85% of British children aged 11 to 16 (to which the school leaving age has been raised) are now educated in comprehensive schools from which most emerge with some sort of formal qualification.
Simultaneously with the battle over comprehensivization another battle also raged over teaching methods. Many of the first comprehensives divided their pupils into different “blocks”: academic, practical, and remedial and were simply the three parts of the tripartite system on one site. Slightly more “progressive” comprehensives “streamed” children according to ability, but this retained the internal tripartite system in as much as there was differentiation between upper and lower streams in terms of the examinations they took and everyone knew which were the academic streams on the one hand and the remedial streams on the other, the majority of the children being placed in streams which were neither. Only rarely was it found possible and seen to be desirable to place each pupil in a “set” for each of his or her subjects, thus avoiding the “labelling” of children as potential successes and potential failures. The most extreme form of progressive education involved putting children into all-ability classes. A move in this direction was the “banding” of classes within the school, once again on the old tripartite model but having mixed ability classes within the bands. While mixed-ability teaching became widespread in the late 1960s in secondary schools, it never spread beyond the lower forms of these schools, but all-ability classes became increasingly widespread in the primary schools in the 1960s. Its acceptance at this level then raised a host of new controversies about how to teach un-streamed classes. These classes usually abandoned the “one-many”, “teacher active – pupil passive” form of class organization. Instead classes were divided into groups actively trying to accomplish prescribed tasks, the teacher moving between the groups. The movement to non-streaming made possible the adoption of many of the ideals of the “progressive” movement in education dating from the 1930s which advocated, pedagogically, the abandonment of a very broad based curriculum designed to stimulate the pupils and widen their range of experience.
The 1980s saw a backlash against progressivism and in favor of traditionalist methods of teaching. The result was a protracted battle between the conservative government and the teaching profession. Behind this battle lay an even more profound question: what is education for? The government took the view that the prime purpose of education was to turn out pupils with skills that employers thought they required their workers to have; that “progressive” education had failed in this task; and that the remedy was to force teachers to abandon such methods and follow a “national curriculum” prescribed by government. The method of enforcement involved setting standards of pupil achievement at the ages of seven, eleven, and fourteen, and publishing the results of these tests for each school so that parents could exercise an informed choice between schools. The market would then vote with its feet forcing the closure of unsuccessful schools. This policy has not been subject to any major change by the present Labour administration.

Choices Facing Parents in the Nineteen Nineties

The vast majority of schools are run by local authorities (usually major counties). A small proportion of all schools are voluntary-aided schools run by religious denominations where parents can ensure that their children’s education is conducted according to the religious principles of the denomination concerned. Local authority schools are required to supply some form of non-denominational Christian religious instruction and religious worship. Parents may withdraw their children from these activities. Local authority schools cover the age range from five to sixteen during which education is compulsory (though home educators can opt out). Some local authorities provide nursery schools (3-5 years). Some provide secondary schooling to 18 years via sixth forms or sixth form colleges. Where they do not, students can continue their education in Colleges of Further Education which are now independent of the local authority. Most secondary schools are comprehensive though some local authorities still retain selective grammar schools. Some secondary schools have opted out of local authority control and are financed directly by central government (“grant-maintained” schools). The only non government-funded schools in the secondary sector are the confusingly named “public schools” which are expensive fee-paying grammar-type private institutions patronized by the rich.
There are a number of considerations that parents take into account when selecting a school for their children. One of the greatest anxieties of parents concerns the social character of the children in the school. Another consideration is the academic standards of the school concerned as measured by the test success/failure rate. Parents are concerned about the way the school interprets the National Curriculum and the manner in which it is delivered and may disfavour a school because they consider its methods too “traditional” or too “progressive.” They may take into account the presence or lack of denominational religious instruction. Having chosen their criteria parents may not be able to find a school which fulfils all of them, or, having found a suitable school, may not be able to obtain a place there. Lack of a school which is suitable according to their criteria may motivate them to home educate.
Parents may, however, disapprove of the educational system as a whole: a system geared to meeting the needs of employers may not seem to them able to deliver anything worthy of the name of education; they will have read reports in the press of the pressures imposed, especially on very young children, by the endless testing; they may be aware that the universities are complaining that the students they receive from the schools know nothing which has not been subject to testing and the only skill they have acquired is passing examinations in a subject as distinct from having developed an understanding of it. A week in politics is a long time: your child is going to spend thirteen years in full time education. When education becomes a political football, as it regrettably has in Britain, there is every likelihood that the whole system will be changed at least three times while your child is in it with all the negative consequences of the disruption of the educational process which that involves.
There is however another scenario for the next quarter century, one which is put forward in a recent article by David Hargreaves (Hargreaves, 1997). His thesis is that the next twenty five years will see the disintegration rather than the continual revolutionization of the educational system.
In the first place he anticipates a growth of private fee-paying schools to supply an educational demand from dual-career couples whose joint income makes expensive private education a viable option. He expects this option to be exercised in favor of highly selective traditional schools on the grammar school model which would form a private sector stratum below that of the “public” schools.
In the second place he anticipates a growth in what he calls specialized schools. Among these he distinguishes those based on a communality of values between parents and teachers such as is found in religious schools, “progressive” schools, or “green” schools, and those based on a communality of values between pupil and teacher. Examples would be schools specializing in science and technology, the arts, or languages. Some such schools would break down the barriers between the worlds of school and work, both teachers and pupils moving from one to another. Moreover such specialization may spread to comprehensive schools where differentiation by ability level would be replaced by differentiation according to subject aptitude.
In the third place he expects a growth in home education. He cites estimates of 10,000 home educators in the UK, 20,000 in Canada, and 30,000 in Australia. (Meighan, 1994). The most remarkable figure is for the U.S. where the number of home educated students is estimated to have grown from 15,000 to 350,000 between 1984 and 1994 (OECD, 1994; Ray, 1999). The increase, he implies, is a result of greater possibility to engage in home education rather than growth in motivation to do so, and the growth in possibility is associated with the increase in the number of home-workers and tele-workers and more recently the easy access to resources provided by the internet. The further developments in this field which he predicts are the growth of peripatetic teachers to provide skills lacked by the home educators themselves and the establishment of home educating centers which provide facilities into which home educators can buy.
Finally, he anticipates a continuance of schools whose primary purpose is custodial. These are schools for the children of the socially excluded, of the uneducated unemployed living off benefit in areas with few social amenities and employment prospects. In such schools neither parents nor pupils have any educational motivation and maintenance of social control within the school is a constant struggle and inhibits all attempts to innovate or change education methods in a progressive direction.
Hargreave’s arguments are highly plausible. This does not mean that they are correct. It is only to be expected that changes as profound as those that European and American societies are now experiencing will require equally profound changes in the educational system. It does not follow that one can, from changes in society, simply read off the changes that must occur in the educational system. Hargreaves takes no account of the wider social effects that would follow if the changes in education he predicts came about. The question rather, is how we should respond to societal change, rather than try to answer the question as to what is going to happen in education. Present changes limit but do not entirely determine the educational future which remains to a degree open. Of particular importance here is the impact of the personal computer and the internet whose impact on traditional schooling Hargreaves ignores.


Lowe, Roy (1988). Education in the postwar years: A social history. London: Routledge.
Morris, Max & Griggs, Clive (1988). Education – The wasted years? 1973 – 1986. London: The Falmer Press.
Ray, Brian D. (1999). Home schooling on the threshold: A survey of research at the dawn of the new millennium. National Home Education Research Institute Publications, PO Box 13939, Salem OR 97309, http://www.nheri.org.
Simon, Brian (1991). Education and the social order 1940 – 1990. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

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